Subterranean Fun at Lava Beds National Monument

Our first stop after leaving Montana was Lava Beds National Monument. We have wanted to visit this fascinating park for several years now, but its location in the North East corner of California has always made it just a little too far out of the way. We came very close when visiting Crater Lake National Park back in 2015, but the extra distance south was just a bit too far for our travel weary kids. So, it was with great anticipation that we drove into the park on an absolutely gorgeous October day to check out some fascinating volcanic formations.

Our first stop was at Tule Lake where we enjoyed spending time viewing the many aquatic birds scattered across the water. We viewed Egrets, Pelicans, Grebes, Coots, and many Gulls. Unfortunately, we didn’t add any new species to our Family Big Year List, but it was super impressive to view the concentration of birds on the lake.

From Tule Lake we headed to the Lava Beds National Monument where we met with a park ranger and received our caving permit. Since we had been in a cave recently in Montana with the same hiking boots we had to use the Bio-Cleaning Station to make sure that our hiking boots weren’t helping to spread White-Nose Syndrome, which is a very serious disease that has been killing bat populations. Since humans can carry the fungus that causes White-Nose Syndrome between caves it is very important to take precautions when visiting multiple cave sites.

After getting our boots cleaned and our permit we were ready to check out the many lava tube caves (created by cooling lava flows 10,500 to 65,000 years ago) that are accessible to the public. We decided to start our visit at Skull Cave, which is one of several ice floor caves in the park. Historically ice has formed on the floors of these caves and has acted as a very important source of water for animals in times of drought. However, human impacts on the caves (people used to ice skate on the cave floors) and global climate change has caused many caves to loss their formations of ice over time. The ice floor at Skull Cave is now closed off the public, but the walk down to the bottom of the cave was still really exciting and super cold! The kids especially liked using their multi-colored MPowered solar lights to guide their way.

From Skull Cave we took a hiking trail that led to both Symbol Bridge and Big Painted Cave. The boys really enjoyed Big Painted Cave where they had to climb down into a pretty small opening to access the back of the cave. We then walked to Big Painted Cave where we were able to view petroglyphs (rock art) depicted on the cave walls by people living in the area over 6,000 years ago.

Overall we had a wonderful visit to Lava Beds National Monument. Not only did we get to experience some amazing caves and view really interesting volcanic formations, but we also learned more about the history of the Modoc people who lived in the area before white settlers and the United States Army forcibly removed the Modoc people onto reservations. The park has many great displays explaining how the Modoc people used the surrounding environment and about The Modoc War that occurred from 1872-1873. We really appreciated getting both a geological and historical overview of the park.

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Goodbye Lakeside

It is hard to believe that we have lived along the shores of Flathead Lake for almost a full year now (our longest time in one place over the past 6 years). As we set off on our next adventure we are thinking fondly of our time in Lakeside, especially since we have been cooped up in the house for days packing. Luckily the weather stayed nice right up until the end of our time here and before we had to start the process of moving out we were able to spend some quality time on the lake. It is definitely one of the most gorgeous lakes that we have ever encountered and we will miss it greatly!

Hiking The Highline Trail – Finally!

Since the fall of 2014 we have been trying to hike the Highline Trail at Glacier National Park. Unfortunately, road closures, swarms of visitors, and snowy weather have gotten in the way. But finally the stars aligned on the last week of September and we were met with a sunny, uncrowded day to head out along the Highline Trail.

Due to an active forest fire in the park the Going-to-the-Sun Road was closed from Lake McDonald to Logan Pass meaning that we had to drive an extra hour and a half to reach Logan Pass from the St. Mary Lake entrance. However, the extra drive time was so worth it considering the conditions that we met once in the park.

Even though there was snow at the top of Logan Pass the sun was shinning, the sky was a brilliant blue, and there were hardly any other people visiting the park that day. In addition having the Going-to-the-Sun Road closed from the west made the Highline Trail super quite and peaceful as the trail winds on the rocky cliffs above the road for the first mile or so.

The Younger Fives really enjoyed hiking along the ledge at the beginning of the trail and looking down at the sheer drop. It is a good thing that none of us have a fear of heights as the hand cable that provides some extra security had already been taken down for the season. Once off the cliff section High Five discovered that the trail side plant species were covered with seeds just waiting to be caught by the wind and he spent the rest of the hike helping to disperse seeds. At times he released so many seeds that we were completely covered with seed fluff and looked quite ridiculous.

As we progressed along the trail we could see smoke from the Sprague Fire, but it didn’t affect the air quality where we were hiking. However, as we made our way up Haystack Pass we were met by hikers returning from the other direction that said the other side of the pass was getting pretty smoky. At that point we decided that we would rather hike in the fresh air and decided to turn back.

Turning back before Haystack Pass left us with enough time before dark to stop at Two Medicine Lake where we picnicked and enjoyed the scenery. The lake was really cold but felt great on our feet after hiking.

The Autumn scenery throughout the drive and hike was absolutely amazing and it was hard to think of this as being one of our last visits to Glacier National Park for the time being. Wildlife viewing for the day was also really great as we saw a mama Grizzly Bear and her cub, an American Pika (these guys are amazingly adorable), Mountain Goats, and a large heard of Big Horn Sheep that walked within feet of our picnic table. All in all it was very hard to drag ourselves away from the park at the end of the day and we all agreed that our Highline Trail experience was definitely worth the wait.

Cedars and Falls – The Best of Montana

On our recent trip to the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness we stopped off at two of Montana’s most amazing wilderness attractions. The first was the Ross Creek Cedar Grove very close to the Bull River Guard Station where we spent the night. This 100 acre National Forest protected area is home to an old growth cedar grove. Some of the western red cedars in the grove are over hundreds of feet high and can be as wide as 12 feet in diameter.

We hadn’t seen old growth trees like these since our time on Vancouver Island and we spent an entire morning exploring the grove. Some trees were hollowed out (yet still standing) and the Younger Fives had a blast climbing into the dark cavities. Other trees had fallen completely making massive play structures and slides. Most surprising during our visit to the cedar grove was the dry creek bed where previous visitors had erected hundreds of stone cairns. We took the time to add our own cairns to the arrangement, some of us building on top of fallen cedar trees. Overall the Ross Creek Cedar Grove is an amazing piece of wilderness that is a must see for anyone venturing to Western Montana.

Our next stop was the equally stunning Kootenai Falls where we were presented not only with views of the largest undammed falls in Montana, but also with a live movie shoot. Completely unexpected to us we ran across the cast and crew of Radioflash which was filming at the falls. This included seeing Dominic Monaghan (better known as Merry from the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) in costume with bloody makeup on his face. Having the cast and crew of a movie production along with their camera drones whizzing through the air was a little bit of a distraction in a place with such natural beauty. However, we did the best that we could to ignore the film production and concentrate on the awesome power and beauty of the falls.

We especially loved the swinging bridge that allowed us to walk directly over the falls. The bridge is not for those with a fear of heights, but it gives you an amazing view up and down the falls. On the other side of the river we spoke with a member of the Kootenai Tribe from Elmo, Montana who was there to make sure that the film crew didn’t disturb the area. The falls are a sacred site to the Kootenai Tribe and a place of much spiritual importance. While we could have done without the trucks, drones, and equipment of the film crew we were glad that we were able to visit Kootenai Falls as an end to our trip.

Overnight at the Historic Bull River Guard Station

Precipitation finally found its way to Montana helping to damper the forest fires and clear out most of the smoke. Eager to get out and explore more of the state before we move on in a few weeks we packed up the car and spent a few days in the Cabinet Mountains Wilderness. Five String has been interested in staying at the Bull River Guard Station for a while now and lucky for us it was available for the weekend.

The Bull River Guard Station was built in 1908 and served as a ranger station for the forest service until the 1970’s. The structure was designed and built by Granville ‘Granny” Gordon (a personal friend of President Theodore Roosevelt) and has a ton of history. The guard station underwent restoration in 1989, but it still retains the original layout. You can still see the 1910 era newspapers that were used to paper the walls when Granville, his wife, and three daughters lived at the guard station.

The inside of the guard station now features electricity, heat, a stove, and a refrigerator. The only amenity lacking is running water and an indoor bathroom (there is an outhouse just off the back porch). The Bull River Guard Station was way bigger than our family needed with four bedrooms, a sitting room, and a kitchen. Being an older structure situated in the wilderness it definitely attracts its share of rodents and insects. Five Spice spent the first hour sweeping away dead bugs and rodent droppings. We choose to do most of our cooking and eating outdoors and store our food in the car, which helped make sure that we didn’t attract the attention of “furry creatures”.

The view of the Cabinet Mountains from the guard station is stunning. The Bull River can be accessed in just a short walk and across the road is a huge grove of cedar trees. The weather cooperated and we spent most of our time hiking, walking along the river, and playing under the cedar trees. The number of hikes accessible from the area is amazing and we can see why the Bull River Guard Station is usually booked by guests throughout the year. We spent the ride home imagining all the other recreational possibilities that the guard station offers if we visit again in the summer or winter.